Rotorua left me with unanswered questions punctuated by the distinct smell of sulphur that refused to abandon my nostrils. Questions like:

Can you put a price on nature? As we cruised by yet another luxurious natural hot pools resort.

Is Maori culture alive and well or just another tourist attraction?  As we were offered enough “authentic Maori experiences” to inspire suspicion towards anyone who looked remotely Polynesian.

And more importantly, will the Earth blow up soon?

This is not an irrational thought, partly because Rotorua sits on an oasis of geothermal activity and partly because the world has gone so horribly awry as of late that blowing itself up might just be the fair and logical thing to do. But I digress.

Rotorua is touted as your best chance to see New Zealand’s geothermal underbelly as well as – at the risk of repeating myself – have “an authentic Maori experience.” This latter claim to fame is a bit of stretch. You can visit a Maori village and learn more about their traditional culture, but it’s clearly an entrance-fee-only living museum, not a friendly homestay.

In the center of Rotorua, there is only one place where you can experience a dose of its geothermal wonders without paying for the privilege: Kuirau Park. It never occurred to me that one could have steaming hot pits of mud and boiling water in the center of a city and not receive a single parental complaint, but there they were. I’m not even a parent and I felt like complaining. Are there no Rotorua teenagers drinking beers and taking dares on the weekends?! I guess not.Nor did I see any with third degree burns.

I was equally perplexed by the sight of a dozen Chinese tourists walking around and snapping photos of this milder version of hell: boiling mud pits, yes, but with guardrails, so don’t worry!? A quick Google search led me to the sad reality that people do indeed die here. Macabre, but we managed to get out alive.

You can bathe in some thermal pools for free at Kerosene Creek about a half an hour south of Rotorua. We didn’t go there, however, because we were still naïve as to just how expensive everywhere in New Zealand is. Instead, we decided to pay the entrance fee to one of the many geothermal parks in the area. We chose Te Puia because it is owned and operated by a Maori tribe. We felt better knowing our $66 NZD per person was going to support the Maori community and that their livelihood was still closely related to the land. Coming from a U.S. state where one of the local Native American tribes, the Ho-Chunk, make their money running casinos, a geothermal park managed by the Maori didn’t seem like such an abrupt digression from their original lifestyle.

I know. History will tell us that running casinos was certainly not the Ho-Chunk community’s first choice for survival, and perhaps this Maori tribe is luckier than most. The geysers and geothermal activity appeared on their tribal land years earlier and they were able to make skillful use of it, without intervention or appropriation by the New Zealand government. They turned it into a very beautiful place that is well worth spending a day to visit. Damián and I happily lost ourselves amongst the smoke screens and Maori carvings with no interest in time.

To start, we were given a short tour by a local guide before being set loose on our own. This gave rise to one of my favorite interactions I’ve had so far in New Zealand.

Tour Guide: Where are you guys from?

Me: The Basque Country.

Tour Guide: …The best country? Where’s that?

Best. Misunderstanding. Ever. (Basque Country/Best Country, you will always have my heart).

The star attraction of the Te Puia park is the Pohutu geyser. It shoots out hot water and steam – sometimes as high as thirty meters – twice every hour. It is the biggest geyser in the Southern hemisphere and it doesn’t disappoint. The crystalline blue bathing pool next to the geyser is known as The Blueys and has been a favorite relaxation spot for the residents of the Te Whakarewarewa Maori village for decades. Only the residents, who are descendants of the original inhabitants of the village, are allowed to swim there and take advantage of its healing powers.

Apart from the geysers, another highlight of the Te Puia Park is the Maori National Wood Carving School and Arts and Crafts Center. Officially established in 1967, Maori people come from different tribes from all over the country to be schooled in the traditional arts and crafts. They learn these skills in order to build and restore cultural artifacts in their home regions. Visitors are allowed to enter the school and watch the woodcarvers and basket weavers at work.

Most Maori carvings are painted in the red ochre color of the kokowai clay. Traditionally, they burned the kokowai, ground it into a fine power, and mixed it with oil to make the paints and dye. It is said that the red ochre is the blood that was shed from when Papatuanuku (Mother Earth) was separated from Ranginui (Sky Father) in Maori legend. For me, these carvings invoke a mixture of fascination and fear. Male statues almost always feature large phalluses, two gaping round paua shells for eyes, and a protruding tongue. Even when hidden amid the forest, these statues have a way of finding you and staring you down. They trigger the feeling that at any moment, I am going to become a victim of pick-pocketing. That would never happen in New Zealand but the sensation of the statue robbing you of something is unshakeable. The only thing more captivating than a Maori carving is, of course, the Maori Warrior.

Here I made an amateur traveler’s mistake. As an addition to our day pass, Te Puia advertised tickets to a demonstration of the Haka – the traditional Maori war dance that is perhaps best known for its performance by the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team. It tends to leave the opposing team petrified and receives a lot of coverage on television. I was excited by the idea of seeing the Haka performed by the Maori instead of the rugby team and in person. Damián was not.

Esto va a ser una mierda,” he warned. “You know it’s going to be a tourist trap.” I was fairly certain he was right because he usually he is, but my idealistic self was hopeful that the last Maori warrior was still standing at Te Puia park, waiting to awe me with his powerful Haka dance. I just had to know.

Obviously, this was not the case. The performance started with us, a group of about thirty tourists, waiting outside the marae (gathering place) for the horns to be sounded. The horns announced the arrival of a visiting tribe. Previously, we had a picked a four-eyed Dutch father of two to be the “chief” of our “tribe.” He was required to step forward and present the home tribe with a silver fern leaf as a sign of peace, which he did so quite graciously in the Dutch way. Then, the home tribe welcomed us into the meeting hall and the performance began.

My last Maori warrior was nowhere to be found. There was a middle-aged, a bit chubby, clearly gay Maori warrior who liked to stick out his tongue and wiggle his belly. There was a skinny, chicken-legged my-mom-is-making-me-do-this-to-represent-my-culture nineteen-year-old baby-faced warrior, the I-want-to-be-an-actor-look-at-my-gorgeous-body warrior (he was probably closest I was going to get to my imaginary ideal), and finally, wait – who is that white guy letting out warrior cries while strumming softly on the acoustic guitar? Is that…Was Jesus also a Maori warrior? Apparently. We could really only assume that this long-haired Jesus Maori was some soul-searching hippie that begged his way into the living village by claiming he had 1/16th of Maori blood and had now reached the path of self-actualization through his assimilation into the indigenous culture and the excessive use of the C, Fm, and G chords. We had to give him some credit. Kia ora, man.

So yeah, the dance was pretty horrifying. Not because it’s a war dance, but because it was so painfully re-enacted. I was certain that at any moment Damián was going to reach out and hit me over the head for bringing him here to such a Disney representation of a culture. They even asked for audience participation in the song and dance section and when we both flatly refused to get up on stage, all of the young children looked at us like two dreadfully boring adults.

It was in this exact moment that I had desperate ache for my friend Nerea. She is the queen of taking an awkward situation and embracing it even more awkwardly until it becomes funny and endearing. If she had been there, she would have shamlessly jumped on stage to plow her way through the dance number and probably would have been awarded a mere, a traditional Maori weapon, for her enthusiasm and participation. It would have never been remembered as that unbearably fake Haka performance and rather that time that Nerea totally rocked the Haka. We really needed her. However, that day we had to content ourselves with other people we didn’t know looking like total idiots. It wasn’t quite as entertaining.

The Haka is something truly empowering and emblematic to Maori culture, but quite simply, a war dance does not work out of context. Perhaps the only reason that it has become such a powerful introduction to a New Zealand rugby match is that sports have often been considered a substitute for war games. The pressure and rivalry is intense and the stakes are high. The feelings surrounding these events are compounded into the Haka, which is very visually expressed through its foot stomping, thigh slapping, chest banging, and violent head movements. It was a good reminder that some things can only be seen if you are in the right place at the right time and we should not be greedy with our travel experiences.

Te Puia Park also offers the opportunity to see the Kiwi, a rare, flightless bird native to New Zealand and whose feathers are used as objects of adornment by the Maori. As the Kiwi is nocturnal, visitors can pass through a dark room with red illumination to catch a glimpse of it in its enclosure. We were lucky to see the bird, but we didn’t feel anything special. There are other parts of New Zealand where one may have the opportunity to see a Kiwi in the wild at night and it’s probably a much more rewarding experience. However, it was beautiful to see the Maori involved in the conservation efforts to protect a bird that is a national symbol of New Zealand and very central to their culture.

Finally, Te Puia Park also provides a lunch that showcases hangi and ingo, two traditional cooking methods. The hangi requires digging a pit into the ground and using heated stones and an earth cover to cook food over the course of several hours. Ingo is cooking inside a flax basket which is lowered into boiling water. As you can imagine, both of these methods are easy to implement at the geothermal park and guests are treated to some delicious fish and kumara, the native sweet potato. We did not try the lunch option as it was a little out of our price range, but we did watch the cooks in action.

The Maori tour guides on site were all members of local tribes and were extremely welcoming. They were always available for questions, taking care of visitor needs, and they put a lot of pride and purpose into their work. Before we left, they reminded us of the importance of manaakitanga, which is the Maori concept of hospitality. Guests are always treated like family members. We were still pretty sure we were just tourists to them, but either way, it was a great day.



New Zealand is a country that is meant to explored on foot and often requires a fair amount of physical exertion. For this reason, it’s important you always keep a supply of granola bars or in our case, GlucUp 15 sticks in your daypack in case of an emergency. We also prepare our food in advance so we don’t have to look for appropriate options when traveling through towns.

As we always mention, it’s extremely important to travel with an insurance company that will support your needs in case of emergency. We use Correduría Barchilon, a Spain-based travel insurance designed especially for diabetics.


TECT All Terrain Park is approximately 27km outside of Rotorua and offers extremely nice, free camping facilities in a wooded area with flush tiolets and a wash station. There is also a kitchen area with a fridge where it is possible to store your insulin, as long as you call and notify the park staff beforehand. There are plenty of closer options, but the view of the stars without any light pollution at night is worth the extra drive.

In order to ensure the adequate storage of Damián’s insulin supply, we opted to have a home base in Hamilton and take short excursions to neighboring regions like Rotorua. This means that we only have to carry the insulin that Damián needs for the immediate future and eliminates the necessity for access to refrigeration. Given the availability of cheap and sometimes free campsites in New Zealand, this strategy has worked well for us so far.


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  1. Dora
    March 11, 2019

    This was one of the best reviews of Te Puia I have read in my search for Rotorua itineraries. Thanks.

  2. Anonymous
    February 7, 2017

    Nice article

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